Holly Williams on Conjuring Future Worlds

June 6th 2017

Curators, Lizzie Muller and Holly Williams at A Working Model of the World, installation view at UNSW Galleries. Image by silversalt.

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Listen to the Canvas: Art & Ideas interview with Holly Williams

When you think of a working model, some arcane, tinkering contraption comes to mind that only the most brilliantly eccentric of our kind has any insight.

A Working Model of the World showing at UNSW Galleries, however, illustrates that we earthly and mundane people also use models to prophesise, experiment, educate and create in some of the most far-flung disciplines as well as those a little closer to home.

To demonstrate such breadth, the Curators, Dr Lizzie Muller and Holly Williams, selected a diverse cluster of artists and mixed industry specialists to put on display everything from ultrasound technologies to architectural dioramas, everything that concerns us inside and out. It is an ambitious and abundant project.

A Working Model of the World impresses just how variable the process of modelling is and how it is co-opted by our institutions as a pedagogical tool. The UNSW Galleries make a fitting context for these reasons alone. As pointed out in the exhibition guide, the gallery is a propositional space in which ideals are frequently played out: the gallery is a microcosmic mock-up of the world.

And one need only think of the proliferating art fair model to see how true that is. Those glossy behemoths more closely reflect high-end real estate than critical spaces of inquiry. Perhaps that is point enough to depart from the artosphere as we have shaped it under the global condition. This exhibition does that to a degree by digressing from traditional art speak and working well outside its usual self-implied territory. This is not to mean it adopts a progressive itinerary, but rather it does not adopt one at all.

The critical word here is not necessarily model, but working. The exhibition aptly demonstrates how modelling is applied, or put to work, “to world”. It also suggests that the true power of modelling is not necessarily in its representational value, but that it has the power to summon a near future, one we imagine into existence. Perhaps even one that functions on different cultural, economic and ecological terms.

The exhibition is introduced with a circle chart that designates eight cultures of model making. These are The Ideal, Belief, Becoming, Scale, Simulacra, Proof, Prediction and Mastery. The chart itself is implicitly talismanic and alludes to spiritual and philosophical processes that seek perfection, wholeness or completion – and in that sense, like work itself, is teleological.

Emily Floyd, Kesh Letterpress, 2017, installation view at UNSW Galleries. Image by silversalt.

A selection of exhibited models reveal just how prevalent modelling is in our daily lives. Emily Floyd’s vernacular models for example, Kesh Letterpress, 2017, underscore the building blocks of a fictional Kesh language and elegantly propose that grammatical structures and vocabularies inscribe our worldviews. If you are a language relativist, this work speaks volumes. It also suggests that for every language is a distinct worldview. Perhaps something to consider given that many subcultural languages are promptly disappearing from this earth.

On the topic of planetary challenges, Kate Dunn’s Endless Summer—Modelling Climate Change, 2017, and Sydney Heatwaves, 2016, deal with Sydney’s accelerating climate crisis. The works play on the widely-held presumption that Sydney is climactically blessed. Although, as any Sydney resident would know, this is a rapidly changing condition. Dunn uses 3D printed objects made from biodegradable plastic to measure record breaking heatwaves across the city over time. Dunn’s data was sourced from UNSW climate scientist, Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, making the work literate across the disciplines of art, science and geopolitics. The models are subdued, with a lot of their information conveyed through topographical shadows cast along the gallery wall. The clean, clear aesthetics belie the imminent ecological crisis and represent this threat as a haunting, almost ungraspable condition of our changing world. The models do not foreshadow an alternative future but suggest that the current crisis will continue to escalate unless we choose to make some (very big) changes.

Kate Dunn, Sydney Heatwaves, 2016, installation view at UNSW Galleries. Image by silversalt.

A model is not necessarily another version of a thing, but a thing – a new thing – within and of itself.

Esme Timberly’s Shellwork Sydney Opera House, 2002, seems to question whether it is possible to abstract enough from an original object to create more than an alt-purpose replica. This work falls into the category of Simulacra, however it is not necessarily an object of imitation because its purpose, given it is made of shells, is clearly not to “repeat” the Opera House. So what is this model’s purpose? Perhaps the purposelessness of the object is its purpose? It is a model that refuses to work. The model, while deliciously kitsch, is the most anarchic of the exhibition.

Esme Timbery, (Untitled) Opera House, 2002, installation view at UNSW Galleries. Image by silversalt.

Throughout human history we have consistently used linear and finite processes to circumscribe an existence that is infinite. What makes modelling so compelling is that the possibilities which enumerate from these processes are infinite too. In other words, A Working Model of the World leaves you with a sense of endless possibility, and that’s a rare comfort these days.